Volunteers make hand-made connections of love and support to babies in Kandiyohi County
Gunnar Thorp is snuggled and asleep in a thick, colorful quilt that not only keeps the 1-month-old baby warm during naps, but also provides a comfy cushion for tummy time that will help strengthen his neck and prepare him for crawling.
The quilt also provides an opportunity for Kandiyohi County Public Health Nurse Marilyn Kemppainen to strengthen a connection with Gunnar’s mom, Kristi Thorpe, as she begins her job as a first-time mother.
It’s a relationship that can make a difference for babies and their families, said Kemppainen, who’s delivered numerous hand-made quilts to Kandiyohi County babies and advice and affirmation to their moms during her nine years as a county public health nurse.
“It extends that connection and that support for them that they really need, especially for first-time moms,” said Kemppainen.
That’s exactly what the women who make the quilts, including the one given to Gunnar, hope happens.
For the last five years women from the Country Quilters group — many of them moms and grandmothers — have volunteered their time and talents to make “lullaby quilts” that Kandiyohi County public health nurses bring to newborn babies during a home visit.
The group has made more than 900 lullaby quilts that have been delivered to Kandiyohi County moms who accept the invitation of a public health home visit after their babies are born.
Moms who receive the quilts are surprised at how beautiful the quilts are, and they are extremely appreciative, said Kemppainen.
“There’s a lot of love put into those quilts,” she said.
The quilts represent the “care of the community” to its children, said Linda Swenson who, along with fellow-quilter Helen Behrends started the lullaby quilt project in July of 2008.
The women truly enjoy making “something special” for the babies, said Swenson.
The quilters meet the third Tuesday of each month, except in December and January, at the Willmar Community Center in a sunlit room that buzzes with sewing machines and chatter.
Volunteers cut the 8½-inch square quilt blocks and line them up into rows ahead of time and put them in stacks with matching quilt backs for seamstresses to assemble during an afternoon sewing session.
“There’s awfully charming fabric out there,” said Swenson.
Each once-a-month sewing day lasts a good four hours.
At the end of the day the group typically finishes 18 to 20 quilts.
Quilters bring their own sewing machines, pins and scissors, as well as a few good stories to share.
“We know each other pretty well,” said Behrends, adding that “getting together and visiting” is part of the fun of making the baby quilts.
Most of the volunteers are also members of the Country Quilters group, but other quilters are welcome. “We can always use more,” said Swenson.
At the session the end of November there were two round tables full of sewing machines and women who sewed together colorful quilt tops and matching backs.
One woman spent the afternoon pressing the seams and fabric with a steam iron.
Another woman rolled out thick layers of batting that was cut in 40 x 40-inch squares and sewn between the quilt tops and backs.
The final part of the project — hand tying yarn at the corners of each square quilt block — is done by another volunteer who does it at her home.
The labor is all volunteered and the money to pay for the material — each quilt is made with brand new fabric — is donated by the United Way of West Central Minnesota and the Kandiyohi Power Cooperative Trust Fund.
For public health nurses like Kemppainen, having a quilt to offer as a gift provides a nice incentive to convince a new parent to have a voluntary home visit.
Using referrals from Rice Memorial Hospital and birth records, public health nurses first contact families with a phone call.
They offer to make a home visit to answer any questions the family may have about their child and being a parent, and they promise to bring a handmade quilt.
“I didn’t know it was going to be such a nice quilt,” said Kristi Thorpe. “I really appreciated it. It’s a nice additional thing they bring to us.”
Thorpe said she was thrilled to receive the quilt, which features fire trucks and Dalmatian puppies on the fabric.
“Gunnar really likes it,” said Thorpe, who also appreciates the help and advice she’s receiving from Kemppainen.
Some families decline a home visit, some agree to one visit and others, including those that have more critical needs, ask for follow-up visits.
Topics like breastfeeding, health concerns for the baby and mom’s experiencing anxiety and depression can be addressed in home visits, said Kemppainen.
Many times there are no risk factors or problems but the home visits gives public health nurses an opportunity to give families the quilt, encourage tummy time for infants and let parents know they are doing just fine.
“Moms really need that affirmation that, yes, they’re doing fine,” said Kemppainen. “To have someone say, ‘you’re doing wonderful.’ They just glow with that affirmation.”